Connecting the Dots: How Leadership Expert Ellie Hearne Harnesses Culture to Drive Strategy

Ellie Hearne, founder of Pencil or Inkcombines the power of practical communication skills with attributes such as trust and responsibility to help leaders master the “human side” of work.

After leaving a job she loved due to cultural misalignment, Ellie knew she wanted her next venture to be sustainable as a working parent and aligned with her personal values. Rather than wait for an opportunity to present itself, Ellie decided to create it for herself. Thus, Pencil or Ink was born. At its core, Pencil or Ink uses a culture-driven approach to help companies and individuals lead effectively and ultimately improve the functioning of their teams.

We asked Ellie how she got into entrepreneurship, what misconceptions she noticed about leadership, and what sets Pencil or Ink apart from businesses in the same vein.

Q: Tell us the story of how your business was founded. How and why did you start working on Pencil or Ink?

A: The story of starting a business is often the story of leaving another. I loved my last job—the people, the work, and the work ethic—but the culture just wasn’t for me. The blurred lines between life and work proved unsustainable when I became a parent. But the culture didn’t just drive me out of this organization; it inspired me to start my own, a leadership consulting firm that approaches everything from a communication and, of course, culture perspective.

Q: What problem does pencil or ink solve?

A: How often do we join a company because of misreading or misrepresenting the culture? It’s so often the reason we leave – micromanaging, poor work-life balance, or fallout from a missed promotion. But learning these things from exit interviews and Glassdoor reviews represents a missed opportunity for leaders. By paying attention to culture and actively working within it, you can reap the benefits of an engaged workforce and a culture-appropriate strategy. We all know that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. But done right, I can attest that culture brings strategy to life.

Q: What makes your company different from others?

A: We connect the dots. Perhaps your corporate value of “collaboration” inadvertently leads to a search for consensus that stifles innovation. Maybe your underperforming employees share a mentor. Perhaps the aspiring leader who allegedly lacks confidence actually doesn’t get a chance to speak up at meetings because a board member told her to “be seen and not heard.” Maybe your organization claims to promote openness, but the performance reviews don’t reflect reality. These dynamics can be virtually seen and touched by a workforce, but are often invisible to leaders.

However, we are not only looking for malfunctions. We identify what works in your culture and work to adapt it as appropriate to the situation, addressing pain points along the way. Whether you come to us for leadership coaching, off-site facilitation, or a series of skills workshops, we first learn why and how your culture is performing in practice before determining the best approach. Sometimes it’s a bespoke pencil or ink engagement; sometimes it is a reference to another provider. Form is everything, which is why we value straightforward communication from the start.

Q: How has your education or past experiences contributed to the way you operate as an entrepreneur?

A: The higher education system I grew up in emphasizes independent study and participation grades. This ability to motivate oneself is vital for early entrepreneurship. In other words, when you lose the job structure, it helps to be able to create it for yourself.

As a first-generation college student, watching and learning from my hard-working parents was essential in shaping my own motivation and working towards achieving my professional and financial ambitions. At the same time, as a tour guide and assistant at a Scottish castle during my teenage years, I quickly learned the value of communication and diplomatic skills.

But I am not a natural leader or entrepreneur, few people are. On the contrary, very often, I had to prove my own assumptions wrong.

“Introverts play background roles.”

“Only people who have gone to private school can flourish academically.”

“Ambition is for others.”

“Working parents tend not to build businesses.”

These are myths, and my success so far has been in acknowledging them as such and finding ways to counter those beliefs, hopefully along the way.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

A: No. I had never thought about it. Like many people, I looked for roles that offered a combination of stability and interesting projects. Only by looking back can I connect the dots that got me here. Additionally, beyond mental boundaries, structural boundaries also come into play. As a US visa holder for much of my career, I could not easily have become self-employed. And it is notoriously difficult to maintain access to health care in the absence of a traditional employment regime. When those things fell into place and I realized that being a stay-at-home parent wasn’t for me, the path became a little clearer. The encouragement from those around me also helped.

Q: Have you discovered any underappreciated leadership traits or misconceptions about leadership?

A: When it comes to leadership, misconceptions abound. Part of my job is to assess communication preferences. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if brash, outgoing types make the best leaders. Answer: not necessarily. Leadership is about self-awareness and balance. Self-awareness, as in “What are my strengths and what happens when I use too many of them?” Balance, as in “How can my strengths counter these weaknesses?” In other words, don’t assume you can be a leader if you don’t conform to some dated stereotype, and if you focus more on yourself than those you lead, you might miss the mark. ‘essential.

If you’re naturally more introverted, recognize your ability to build relationships quietly, perhaps, and challenge yourself to talk a little more in groups. If you’re more outgoing, reinforce that ability to make a quick decision or think out loud by challenging yourself to speak last at your next team meeting. Everything is situational, but these tendencies tend to persist.

Q: What did you learn about building a team and a support network around you?

A: Give more than you receive, especially when supporting people who are trying to follow a similar path to yours. Share openly and ask questions, even if they feel vulnerable. Know that counselors can crop up in any area of ​​your life, and whether you succeed or fail, everything is an opportunity to learn.

Q: What’s next for you and your business?

A: Growth—professional, personal, and developmental. I work to find new ways to reach people with my work, although referrals happily keep me busy. I value the autonomy I have over my time and the ability to spend much of it with my growing family, although any parent will tell you it’s still a work in progress. As for my own development, I enjoy teaching part-time at Oxford University’s business school and look forward to applying the strategic innovation techniques I teach to my own business. – it is already a pleasure to share them with client companies. The challenge and the beauty of growing up is that none of us know what will come next.

Ellie is a member of dreamers and doersa private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more on dreamers and doers and subscribe to their monthly The summary for the best entrepreneurial and professional resources.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Helen D. Jessen